Our Lord’s miraculous walking on water is one of his unforgettable acts while he lived among mankind in human form. It speaks to us for all time of his power when we are beset and besieged.
In the lead-up to this miracle, Jesus had taken his disciples to a solitary place to rest and recover from a stretch of strenuous ministry. But the eager multitudes followed them there. As the day drew toward evening, Jesus miraculously fed 5000 men by multiplying five loaves and two fish to more than enough to satisfy the hunger of the throng (Mark 6:35 – 44).
He then immediately directed his disciples to board their boat and leave for the other side of the lake. At the same time, he left them and went up on a mountainside to pray.
As darkness settled, the disciples were far into the lake, a distance, the Apostle John says, was three or more miles from shore (John 6:19). A fierce headwind buffeted them forcing them to pull at full strength on the oars. They were in a disaster mode, and they knew the mortal perils on this lake whenever the winds whipped it with a sudden fury.
Mark tells us, Jesus, from his place on the mountainside, “saw the disciples straining at their oars.” Not, however, until about three in the morning did he go out to them walking on the water. When they saw him amongst the threshing waves and airborne spray he appeared to be a ghost. The disciples cried out in fear.
From his spot near the boat Jesus calmed their fears. ““Take courage”, he said, “it is I. Do not be afraid”. Then he climbed into the boat and the wind died down.
There are things about this story that could be baffling. Fortunately the miracle is reported in three of the four Gospel accounts, so not only does Mark give the account; two other reporters do also.
For example, Mark tells us that earlier, while they were all on land together after the feeding of the 5000, “Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat” (Mark 6:45). This is not a suggestion or bit of gentle instruction; it is a command. It feels urgent. Did Jesus purposely insist they go into waters that would soon be roiled by a dangerous windstorm?
The Apostle John may hold the answer. He notes that the miraculous feeding of the 5000 had prompted the crowds to say: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” And subsequently, he tells us, “Jesus, knowing that (the throngs) intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15).
Was Jesus actually tempted by their intentions? At the start of his ministry, after Jesus resisted the 40 days’ temptation in the wilderness, Luke 4:13 tells us that “the devil left him until an opportune time.” An opportune time? Was this that time? And is this why he sought solitude to pray? Was he under a dangerous temptation?
It was apparently a dangerous state of affairs for the disciples. They had on occasion revealed their carnal wishes about being officials in an earthly kingdom. If the idea the throngs were pondering should succeed — to make Jesus their king — this might bring about the destruction of Israel by Roman rulers. Could it be that their peril in a storm was safer than their safety on dry land? From his mountainside retreat, Jesus could see them from three miles away.
One wonders if there are times when in the sovereign wisdom of God he sees we would be safer facing a biting headwind in a roiling storm rather than being completely comfortable in a safe place where strong temptations might present themselves and overcome us.
When it comes to our Lord’s watching over us there may be a lesson for every committed believer in all of this. Caught on the stormy seas of life, we are under his watchful care even when we are not aware of it.
We might say, our Lord always has the ability to see us, whatever the circumstance. Neither darkness, nor storm, nor passing of time, nor even 2000 years of history, have done anything to reduce his power:
“Surely” he says to his followers down through the ages, ”I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). What greater assurance do we need than that?
Photo credit: Ben Salter (via flickr.com)